The Gift of Perspective - A Dialogue on Race and the Quest for Love

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“The Gift of Perspective – A Dialogue on Race and the Quest for Love”

Rev. Greg Ward and Carlos Tirado

Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula

January 22, 2012

 

CALL TO WORSHIP – Konny Murray

I am the child of Southern parents.  My parents moved north of the Mason Dixon line from Jonesboro ARK to Hammond IN 15 years before I was born. We were considered Yankee by our Southern relatives, but the Southern culture was very apparent in our house.

 

My father said Yes Sir and Yes’m to people, whether they were a meat cutter, an executive, or a house cleaner.  My mother cooked corn bread, collard greens, homemade dumplings, and lots of fried foods.

 

That politeness and comfort food was wrapped up with a confusing package of messages about ethnicity.

 

When I was in single digits, Mother and I would drive down to Jonesboro to visit her oldest sister and my grandmother mother for a couple weeks every June.  I remember the separate White and Colored drinking fountains in the town square along with separate bathroom facilities in some department stores.  Of course, “coloreds” were not permitted in most restaurants we went to.  I asked Mother about it and I remember that she said that in the South folks keep the Negroes away from White people.  Why?  I wanted to know.  To keep things cleaner - It’s how it is down here, was her reply. 

 

At home in Indiana, whenever I asked Daddy about this or similar things, he’d say that anyone who works hard, gets good grades, is earnest and fair, can go far.  That includes people of any color or sex he’d tell me.  He grew up much poorer than Mother did.  I think that influenced him. 

 

One of our favorite restaurants over the state line in Illinois had a sign at the entrance that said “Members only.”  When I asked whether we were members, my Father said, “No, that sign is there to keep the Negroes and Jewish people out.”

                    

Mother taught me to be very careful around people of color. She cautioned me to stay away from certain parts of town…the parts where most of the colored folks (as she called them) lived.  It is dangerous there, she’d tell me.  I still sometimes find myself still feeling discomfort in my stomach when I land in a strange town or a situation where I, as an anglo, am in the minority.

 

Working on this Call to Worship, got me thinking.  So that, in a recent trip to New York City, I reveled in the multitude of varying faces and garbs and cultures whenever we popped out of the subway in a new part of the city.  Strikingly different than here. 

 

Still, while Daddy for the most part gifted me with the idea of acceptance of others, Mother wrapped people of color in a cloak of potential danger. 

 

Cutting through these wrappings is what I continue to work on.

 

Come, let us worship.

 

REFLECTION

GREG:  The truth that I have pieced together from all my experiences tells me that there is one driving force at the center of everything… and that driving force is the quest for Love. 

 

LOS:     The truth that I worked hard to understand is that I am a gift of God. 

 

GREG:  That means, I pay attention to Love – above and beyond any other prompting… Early on, it is what I adjusted my radar for.  I am shaped by – with – and for noticing love. 

 

LOS:     It is clear to me now that I was born perfectly imperfect… I am beautiful… resilient… I am deserving of other people’s love and attention, and able to offer valuable love and meaning by being just who I am

 

GREG:  It doesn’t mean Love is the only thing I have been shown or the only thing I was taught – or learned – to show others. 

 

LOS:     I am a gift of God.  Even if everything I have been given has not always felt like a gift.

 

GREG:  I am familiar with all manners and varieties of fear.  I know shame and guilt.  Embarrassment and doubt – these feelings have gotten in the way of me accepting love into my life.  I know cynicism and distrust.  Stubbornness and judgment.  These have kept me from sharing love with others. 

 

LOS:     To arrive at this understanding has not been automatic or easy. I have had to reach back – far back – into the story of my life… and I had to re-examine some painful and confusing moments. 

 

GREG:  I discovered these feelings in the earliest moments when the love I needed didn’t show up.  I was not very sophisticated or resourceful in making sense of why.  Or what to do in response.

 

LOS:     I have had to go back and sift through all the experiences in my life… I had to look at everything that helped shape my character.  I had to look closely at how others looked at me… and how I looked at myself. 

 

GREG:  As a little boy, I naively resigned myself to the belief that I could employ the fear I saw others adopting to protect or defend myself and convince others I still deserved love.  I could discharge and project some of the hurt on others until the Love I was wanting did arrive. 

 

LOS:     And I had to rethink what, at first seemed obvious.  I had to go back into my family’s story… into my neighborhood’s story… into my culture’s story… into my society’s story… and I had to recognize that every conclusion reached, every report provided… every observation made, came to me through a lens which had distorted the truth. 

 

GREG:  My approach – and the strategies of others I copied – were not particularly sophisticated, wise or forward thinking.  But it was how I coped at the time. 

 

LOS:     I had to go back and re-examine every look I was given… every door that was slammed… every name that was shouted… every slight that was made… 

 

GREG:  Those coping strategies became habits… And those habits became beliefs.  Those beliefs became values… And they all became my framework for life… even though they didn’t result in the feelings of love I was looking for. 

 

LOS:     Even harder, I had to go back and look for every path that was not cleared, every service not offered, every hand not extended and every dream not available.  I had to re-imagine myself as the person I might have been had I been seen through the lens of love instead of the lens of race. 

 

GREG:  That was the crazy and confusing way I went about growing up and trying to become part of a world that revolved around fear.  It took a long time to remember what I once knew was true: that love is at the heart of everything… including me.

 

LOS:     I knew at the time that what I was experiencing wasn’t right.  But I could not change it.  It took a long time to find a light of love that I could use to shine on my life.  It took a long time to lay claim to the truth I am a gift of God. 

 

SERMON

LOS:     Being a person of color in America is not a comfortable existence.  It means being part of the company of the bruised, the battered, the scarred, and the defeated.  Being a person of color in America means trying to smile when you want to cry.  It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death.  It means the pain of watching your children grow up with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies.  It means having your legs cut off, and then being condemned for being a cripple.  It means seeing your mother and father spiritually murdered by the slings and arrows of daily exploitation, and then being hated for being an orphan.  Being a person of color in America means being harried by day and haunted by night by a nagging sense of nobodiness and constantly fighting to be saved from the poison of bitterness.  It means the ache and anguish of living in so many situations where unborn hopes have died.   – MLK, Jr.

 

GREG:  "What we think is less than what we know;

What we know is less than what we love;

What we love is so much less than what there is.

And to that precise extent, we spend so much of our lives being so much less than what we are."

—R.D. Laing

 

LOS:     We’re not born with the innate desire to hate another person simply because of the color of their skin or the language they speak.  We learn that from watching and noticing others.  From a very early age I have memories of noticing that the color of my skin made a difference.  And it made my father angry. 

 

I remember first seeing my father’s rage at prejudice when my parents tried to get me into a catholic grammar school.  One school already turned us down because of my color.  This infuriated my father.  My father is a very fair skinned Puerto Rican.  I inherited my coloring from my mother who was darker skinned.  In the second interview, I overheard my father mention to my mother, ‘if they don’t accept him for the color of my skin, I’m going to kick the priest’s ass!’ 

 

GREG:  I think it was because I was so hungry for love that I paid such close attention to the opinions of others.  Especially the people I most liked or who were most likely to give me love.  And I listened to their opinions and especially to their expressions of fear.  I learned very early on that there was a high correlation between someone showing fear and the likelihood they would soon display anger.  In an effort to avoid their anger – which I was afraid of – I learned to show them I understood and could adopt all their same fears.

 

LOS:     I did get into that school without my father having to fight the priest.  My first observations were that I was going to have to be big to fit into the big furniture.  And I would have to be like good to keep from being punished.  But I was one of only two dark skinned kids in the school.  I don’t think I knew it consciously, at the time.  But subconsciously I already felt beneath them. 

 

GREG:  School, was all about learning.  But it was never measured by anything written on the report cards.  School in east Los Angeles taught you about fitting in, because if you didn’t fit in, you got singled out and things turned out very bad for the kids who didn’t have any group to be part of.

 

LOS:     It never really occurred to me when I was in school that I was a gift from God.  What I learned was that ‘bad things happen to bad little boys.’  I was punished both at school and at home.  Punishment was a bad thing… so… I had to be a bad boy.  I kept hearing that God doesn’t make mistakes.  But most of the time I couldn’t help but feel like I was one of God’s mistakes. 

 

GREG:  Violence or the threat of violence was a daily source of tension at school.  At the time, I never understood why some kids always seemed to show up ready to fight.  I later discovered that the kids at school were just trying to discharge all the tension they felt at home.  Most of them were to ashamed to talk about the violence inflicted on them.  But they weren’t too ashamed to pass it on.  All they needed was the smallest reason to justify their rage – the clothes you wore… your name… the color of your skin…

 

LOS:     I grew up knowing things were segregated.  We lived in a little ghetto with the other Puerto Rican families.  From this block on, there were white people.  From this block on there were black people..   This was our block… the Puerto Rican block.  If you were living in our neighborhood, it was definitely not because of choice.  It was because of race, and because you couldn’t live anywhere else. 

 

GREG:  The part of East Los Angeles we grew up in was not a slum – and it was not Beverly Hills.  It was working class and the people who lived there felt what it was like to be in between.  Mr. Smith, a neighbor a few houses down with a son a little older than my friends would often make comments to us about the gangs that were forming.  He called them ‘wet-backs’ and said ‘they were no better than the slants, the wops, the krauts or the coons.’ 

 

LOS:     Once, when I was just 7 or 8, and I wandered in to the wrong neighborhood, I heard someone yell out their window, “hey you little nigger, get out of here…. I couldn’t believe how ignorant and wrong she could be… I wasn’t a nigger, I was a spic.

 

GREG:  I remember not knowing what any of the words meant that Mr. Smith had used.  The term ‘white privilege’ started coming into use a few years later and I didn’t know what that meant either.  I learned later that ‘white privilege’ meant I didn’t HAVE to know what any of those words meant.  Or the impact they carried.

 

LOS:     Being made very much aware that I didn’t belong – just because of the color of my skin.  Trying to wander out of ‘my place’ led to my constantly being ‘put back into my place.’

 

GREG:  I spent every day at school trying to secure a place in the pack of kids in our neighborhood.  I never tried to be in charge.  They were challenged all the time.  But they also decided where the margins would be set – and who would be in them.  Who would be singled out, picked on, kicked out.  I tried mostly not to be that person – which sometimes required that I join in on the taunting of others.

 

LOS:     There was a beautiful Irish girl I knew from school.  She was not in MY neighborhood, but the same type.  She was from a lower income Irish family.   We liked each other… I walked her home.  Gave her a kiss on the front door.  I walked away… but I turned around just in time to see her mother racing out to the stoop and slapping her hard in the face… ‘What are you?!  A spic lover?!’

 

I let the power of her mother’s statement dictate what I would do.  The next time I saw her in school I said I couldn’t see her anymore.  I thought I was taking the higher rode… saving her from getting slapped.  But I came away with the clear signal that I wasn’t good enough for her love.

 

GREG:  A lot of people are confused by the term ‘white guilt,’ but I have always known exactly what it meant.  I grew up Unitarian Universalist which meant that we learned about racism in the 60’s and 70’s in our RE classes.  I knew that it was wrong to discriminate.  It was wrong to be mean  or inflict violence on someone because of the color of  their skin.  And if you saw it done, you should stand up against it.  I knew that.  

 

LOS:     And the color of our skin even mattered within our own race.  When I was in Puerto Rico, I dated a very fair skinned PR… Her grandmother was prejudiced,  what we would now call, ‘internalized  oppression.’  “You can date him,” I overheard her say, “I can understand your need to have fun… but you don’t want to marry him… you don’t want to dirty your blood.”

 

GREG:  But I also knew that standing up against discrimination would mean that you would be the next one everyone turned against.  I watched countless incidents where it happened and countless incidents were people – friends – were slandered, taunted or put in their place.  I learned to act direct defiance to everything I knew was true about racism and everything I believed about love.  And I wasn’t alone.  I could see by the look in their eyes that many of my white friends recognized it too.  We knew what white guilt was.  No one had to come and explain it to us.

 

LOS:     I developed a resentment which, in later years, turned into indignation.  “How dare you?!” I’d think.  “You don’t know me… I’m just as good as you!”  Eventually, it turned to doubt.  Then anger… Then apathy…  If something would happen to a white person I wouldn’t care… They did a lot worse to us.

 

GREG:  All throughout my growing up I noticed a mounting collective despair.  Externally, a failure to form any kind of real covenant of good will between the races – and peoples of any recognizable differences - led toward questions of whether such rifts could ever be repaired.   Internally, I felt self-loathing from continually failing to do what I thought was right and wondered whether such rifts could ever be repaired.       

 

LOS:     I turned to drugs later in high school.  It is true that part of the reason was to get some relief or escape from feelings of ‘less than,’ or ‘loneliness.’  But partly, drugs felt like a great equalizer.  It was a bridge builder.  With drugs we didn’t see color… we just saw another person who needed to get loaded… For the first time in my life I talked openly to people of all races, creeds and classes of people.

 

GREG:  Confronting the reality of what was being asked of me was incredibly hard.  I looked at how hard it was, how many times I lacked the courage to do the ‘right’ thing, how I wished someone else smarter or better positioned would come and do it for me or show me how…  No one showed up.  And I felt inadequate, sad, angry, overwhelmed, confused, numb, lonely, tired, anxious and increasingly desperate.  All important feelings.  But none of them led me back to the Love I believed was at the center of my life.  And I remained depressed and anxious and agitated for many years.

 

LOS:     But soon my use became a dependency and my dependency became an addiction.  Without a certain level of escape and numbness, I couldn’t function.  At 35 I found myself married with a 2 year old son who I adored.  But I was experiencing blackouts.  I woke up one day terrified what might have happened.  I knew, in order to love them, I had to leave them. 

 

GREG:  I saw situations getting worse and people I cared about suffering which, when pitted against my own paralysis only extended my disappointment with myself.  It took all the love I had left at the center of my soul to face my feelings and recognize that I needed some help – some training - on how to be an ally for those who suffer.

 

LOS:     Recovery and AA helped me hit bottom and get my feet back on the ground.  But it also taught me that my addiction – and deeper – my pain and feelings of ‘less than’ and ‘loneliness’ was not a race driven disease.  We are all the same when it comes to the pain of emptiness and the need to feel whole. 

 

GREG:  That training led to seminary.  By the time 911 happened, I had entered into ministry and learned to do a few things that helped me make it through the overwhelm of living in a world so ethnically, culturally and racially divided.  

LOS:     Taking some action helped me to reclaim a gratitude for my life – including how I grew up… I am the sum total of all my experiences…. Both good and bad.  My stories matter.  The prejudices and racial stereotypes - the hurts and sorrows that came from judgment and doors slamming in my face because of the color of my skin – are real… just like my dignity.

 

GREG:  The most powerful turning point in the work so far has been standing in the cell at the Maricopa county jail surrounded by countless Latino men who couldn’t figure out why a white man would get arrested for their rights.  And as I tried to explain it was about Standing on the Side of Love, I realized I had figured out how to move back to the place where Love was at the center.

 

LOS:     Today – after much work my truth and conclusion is that I AM of great worth.  The love I was given at birth endured all the hardships and the hurts. It was never extinguished or retracted.  The trick was to hold on long enough to bring it back into the light – and learn to look through a lens of love.  Whenever you stand in that light and look at another through the lens of love, the color they are does not matter. 

 

GREG:  “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” – MLK, Jr.

 

LOS:     To those of you who have long been active in eradicating racism, thank you for pioneering and enduring and inspiring others… For those of you who have been thinking about becoming active but are afraid, you are not alone.  Remember, if we wait to do what’s really hard until we are no longer afraid, then it is fear that will be running our lives.  If there is something you want to do about racism but you are afraid… than do it afraid.   And know that what you offer – yourself – is a gift from God.

 

GREG:  To the Glory of Life.